Nature in Iceland is designed to make you feel small - volcanoes covered by ice loom over a verdant green coastline, glaciers grind their way to the ocean, geysers erupt and the northern lights dance in the sky. All the while culture blooms - from medieval sagas to modern pop-musicians and Nobel-prize winning authors. And then there is the glorious food and the warm, quirky people - what is there not to love about Iceland?
Reykjavik, the first place to be settled by the Vikings of old is also Iceland's largest city by far. Expect creative people, amazing design, captivating art and great nightlife all happening in a setting infused with crystal-clear ocean air against a backdrop of snowy mountains. For a city of its size, Reykjavik hosts a remarkable number of great museums. The Settlement Exhibition, the National Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Einar Jonsson Museum (for sculptures) are some of the best.
The nearby Golden Circle is experienced by many as a day-trip out of Reykjavik. This classic route shows you the oldest parliament in the world and meeting place of two continents at Þingvellir, the explosive geyser Strokkur and the spectacular waterfalls at Gullfoss.
Superjeeps are 4WD vehicles, modified with big wheels to take on the challenging off-road terrain of Iceland's interior like the multi-colored landscapes of Þórsmörk &
Landmannalaugar. Here, glaciers, mountains in every colour of the rainbow and ancient forests overlook swirling rivers, soothing hot springs, incredible lava flows and deep gorges. Fantastical rock formations rise up out of carpets of Arctic flowers and brilliantly coloured moss.
picking up your ice axe and joining a guided hike on one of Iceland's many glaciers.
Travelling east, black floodplains carve through green valleys while the cliffs at Dyrholaey are some of the best spots to watch puffins. Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see these comical birds with their multi-coloured beaks filled with fish.
In the south-east of the country, on the edge of Europe's largest icecap, Vatnajökull, lies Iceland's most popular wilderness area: Skaftafell. It offers rugged peaks, raging rivers, sandy glacial valleys lined with twisted stands of birch and thundering waterfalls, all connected by a network of hiking trails. A little further along lies the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Here chunks of iceberg
float through on their way to the wild Atlantic Ocean sometimes drifting onto black volcanic sand beaches. Take a boat trip out on the lagoon, or walk along its shores. This is a photographer's dream, especially at sunset.
Continuing anti-clockwise along the coast, the Eastern Fjords offer remote fishing villages and forgotten farms perching on the edge of cold fjords, backed by wild mountains off which waterfalls plunge to the sea. This is remote Iceland at its best.
Along the northern coast, Dettifoss is Iceland's most impressive cascade. It has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe. The nearby canyon of Ásbyrgi was gouged out in a matter of days by an immense jökulhlaup (glacial flood), triggered by the eruption of a volcano underneath a glacier.
Nearby, Mývatn is the name of a beautiful lake situated in the midst of an area of otherworldly landscapes, offering lava fields, volcanoes, steaming vents and pseudo-craters. Climb a perfect volcanic cone to peer into its crater, or hike the weird formations at Dimmuborgir: Iceland offers some of the best
hiking in the world. Without any major altitude to be gained, hiking trails crisscross the many national parks and wilderness areas in this stunning country. From short walks to waterfalls, to multi-day treks like the spectacular four-day Laugavegurinn trek, Iceland has a hike for everyone.
Prettily situated on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, Húsavík is Iceland's whale watching capital. Despite its reputation as a whaling nation, Iceland is one of the best countries in the world to see these majestic mammals. Eleven whale species can frequently be seen in Icelandic waters.
Iceland's second biggest town, Akureyri, is well-tended and small but offers a surprising number of cool cafes and excellent restaurants. With some of the best lamb and seafood in the world, food lovers have plenty to celebrate in Iceland. Try staples like rúgbrauð (rye bread) and brennivín (schnapps). Dairy features big on the menu, while the adventurous can try Hákarl (fermented (and pungent!) shark). I tried it and it tastes like a horsebarn waiting to be cleaned out. They say it is a delicacy.
Circling back along the west coast, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula juts out from the mainland a few hours north of Reykjavik. It offers volcanic peaks crowned by a glacier, sparkling fjords, steep sea cliffs, abundant birdlife, lava caves and a smattering of fishing villages. It is a miniature of Iceland, offering all the best the country has to offer. Some will bypass Snæfellsnes as they choose to travel through the interior of Iceland, an extremely beautiful barren region of rugged desert-like mountains.
Celebrate your return to the capital with a night out on town - Reykjavik's nightlife has a well-earned reputation. Don't be surprised if your restaurant over the course of the evening turns into a dance floor or nightclub!
A uniquely Icelandic experience, and deeply engrained in the national culture, are hot springs and swimming pools. Almost every town and village has pools fed by thermal springs and they are accessible to everyone for next to nothing. You may even find a hot spring in the middle of the mountains where you can soak after a long hike. But if you missed them, or can't get enough of them, drop in on the Blue Lagoon on your way to the airport. Surely one of Iceland's most famous features, time spent in the Blue Lagoon is time well spent before boarding your afternoon flight back to North America.
Iceland can be visited year-round - summers are generally pleasant and winters are surprisingly warm. For hiking, June through mid-September is the best time. Due to its location close to the Arctic Circle, the months of October through March see long nights and are therefore prime months to see the mesmerizing Northern Lights dance across the skies. Winter is a spectacularly beautiful time with low striking light, making for great photography. Whenever you travel to Iceland and wherever you go, you will have a fantastic time.
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